Christopher Nolan’s Fugue State: Inception

Inception movie poster

 

In his 1999 essay Celluloid Vs. Digital, Roger Ebert cites studies equating the experience of watching a movie to entering a fugue state: “film creates reverie, video creates hypnosis.” In other words, experiencing a film in the traditional manner, projected at 24 frames per second in a darkened theater, affects the brain in a way akin to dreaming. Inception is far from the first movie set in dreams, but it may be alone in attempting to encode the experience into the architecture of a film itself. Whether you compare it to onion skins or a puzzlebox, the form follows the content.

The bar has been set very low by the likes of Avatar, but Inception is finally proof that movies with budgets in the hundreds of millions need not be moronic and disposable. Yes, Inception is a sci-fi action movie full of well-tailored outlaws, guns, fight sequences, and exploding mountain fortresses, but it’s also an intelligent, complex experience for adults. If it took a weak remake and two movies about a vigilante in a rubber bat costume for Nolan to get here, then so be it.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt in Inception“It’s not, strictly speaking, legal.”

Inception is the natural progression from Following, Memento, and The Prestige, Christopher Nolan’s quartet of wholly original visions. Insomnia, a safe remake of the far more incendiary Norwegian original, now seems like a detour, a paying of dues to enter the mainstream. His pair of Batman franchise entries injected a modicum of psychological realism into the pulp source material, but the grimly ponderous weight of it all was perhaps more than it could bear. For my money, nobody other than Tim Burton has managed to find the right mixture of camp and solemnity that makes up Batman.

While Inception may have some surface resemblance to numerous heist, caper, long con, action, and science fiction films, it is nevertheless a very welcome New Thing. Its deepest thematic links are probably to cerebral sci-fi meditations Solaris and Until the End of the World. The nightmare planet in Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris haunted visitors with imperfect reincarnations of their most emotionally significant others. When a grieving astronaut is reunited with his ersatz wife, long dead of suicide, is it a blessing or a curse?

Inception“A single idea from the human mind can build cities. An idea can transform the world and rewrite all the rules.”

Wim Wenders’ Until the End of the World posits a future in which dream-reading technology would be enormously addictive, psychologically damaging, and permanently alter society. If a technology is ever invented for a group of people to not only enter an individual’s dreams but also to construct the dreamworld itself, how plausible it is that society would not be radically transformed? In Inception, Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a master at corporate espionage. His expertise is with a process normally utilized for the “extraction” of trade secrets, but inverted to inception: to implant an idea, a task which proves to hold massive significance to Cobb. Like a drug, we’re told, these machines gradually seep away users’ ability to dream on his or her own. We glimpse a sort of opium den in which burned-out dream junkies go to re-experience the normality of not only dreaming, but more importantly, waking up from dreams. Wenders’ The End of Violence would similarly look at another dystopian future in which global surveillance is taken to its logical extreme.

Inception’s action sequences beg comparison to everything from James Bond, Jason Bourne, and Mission: Impossible. Its creative fight sequences, taking place in virtual arenas in which the laws of time and gravity are fluid, recall The Matrix. But the true narrative and structural template is much more along the lines of long-con tale much loved by David Mamet (particularly Homicide and Redbelt) and heist films Rififi, Thief, and Heat, in which a crack team of criminal experts work with a psychologically damaged leader on a high-stakes One Last Job.

The bloodless massacre of hordes of armed thugs seems designed to resemble video games. The obliquely portrayed violence is partly explained by a PG-13 rating that hypocritically permits dozens of onscreen shootings, but disallows blood, and thus any sense of the repercussions and ramifications of violence. But in the world of the film, the thugs are explained to be manifestations of the subconscious. A slight-of-hand morality magic trick that makes it OK for our heroes to mow them down with machine guns and grenades (again, this flashes back to The Matrix, in which the good guys rationalize away their mass killing of virtual avatars).

Marion Cotillard in Inception“You mustn’t be afraid to dream a little bigger, darling.”

Inception had already developed a reputation as a mind-bender even before release, but I found it to be surprisingly straightforward if you pay a little bit of attention. If you choose to take the film at face value, pretty much everything you need to know is spelled out for you, often in frankly literal exposition (usually in exchanges with Ellen Page’s inquisitive character). The key ambiguity is a simple but profound question raised in its final moments. Interpreted one way, the film neatly wraps itself up in an airtight box (which is extraordinary in and of itself, when most big-budget movies often fail to make logical sense). Interpreted another way, it calls into question everything you’ve seen.

This moment hinges on Cobb’s totem, a personal item that each dream-traveller must rely upon to detect whether or not they are awake. Both Cobb and Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) warn Ariadne (Ellen Page) to never allow anyone else to touch hers. But Cobb also freely admits that his totem first belonged to his wife Mol (Marion Cotillard). Complicating matters, unless I missed something, we never see her with it outside of the dream world. The top had symbolic meaning to Mol, for she locked it up in a metaphorical safe in her dreams. Cobb then uses it to plant the notion in her head that the dream world is not real, in order to encourage her to break her addiction and wake up with him. If the top was real, would she not be able to test herself with it when she woke up?

One further clue that suggests much of what we saw may be Cobb’s dream: if he and Mol lived the equivalent of 50 years in Limbo, several levels deep into their subconscious, why do they seem to only wake up through one level of dreaming? Is Cobb still trapped a few levels down?

Ellen Page in Inception“Dreams feel real while we’re in them. It’s only when we wake up that we realize something was actually strange.”

And one wonders about the implausible dream technology itself. It’s offhandedly said to have been developed by the military for training purposes, but very little time is spent on the mechanics of the technology. Some sort of IV is involved in the process of linking people together, but how exactly does an Architect create and realize the world? We see Ariadne fiddle with papier-mache models, and verbally describe the world to the participants, but we’re also told that the architect need not necessarily enter the dream personally, so it’s not her mental map that makes things possible. If the agents are able to conjure things on the fly (Eames produces a grenade launcher out of thin air, and Ariadne folds a city in half), why do they not take more advantage of their effectively unlimited abilities during the heist? Cobb makes a big deal out of a prospective architect being able to devise labyrinths, something like a video game level designer. But Ariadne’s work is literally short-circuited and we never see a dramatic payoff to the theme of mazes.

Ray Bradbury once said that he was not concerned with the mechanics of interstellar travel; if a story he wished to tell required a rocket ship to ferry characters to another world, that was good enough for him. So is it pedestrian of me to wonder about these practicalities, or do these questions actually matter a great deal? Is the lack of specificity about how this miraculous technology actually works a clue? I believe it is linked to the troubling ambiguity of Cobb’s desire to “go home.” Does he simply want to clear his name so he can re-enter his home country, or does he want to plunge deeper into his fantasy? Is he actually guilty of a crime like Roman Polanski, or merely obsessed with indirect culpability like Kelvin in Solaris or Teddy in Shutter Island? Either way, he may have the opportunity to construct a false reality in which he can absolve himself.

I believe Inception is one for the ages, and not just because it has been endorsed by Al Gore. Like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Blade Runner, it’s the rare science fiction film likely to remain well-regarded for years.

Random Observations:

  • How many heist movies have you seen in which the master thief attempts the mythical One Last Job before retiring?
  • Despite Leonardo DiCaprio sporting Nolan’s own haircut, Inception might suffer in comparison to his somewhat similar character in his most recent film, Shutter Island. Two thrillers in a row about a man wracked with guilt over his dead spouse.
  • Wikipedia puts the budget at $160 million, plus a $100 million publicity campaign. As usual, these numbers make my head spin. But at least this time the result is a strong movie.
  • Like Paul Thomas Anderson, Nolan has developed his own personal actors’ troupe. Inception features return appearances by Michael Caine, Ken Watanabe, Cillian Murphy.

Official movie site: www.inceptionmovie.com

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Lost in The Matrix

Now that the Lost fiasco finale has come and gone, and my blood pressure has dipped back down into safe levels, I am going to attempt to speak calmly about how the show let me down. Yes, I am aware that it is just a TV program, and there are a great many other things in the world worth being upset over (I’m looking at you, BP). But following a weekly TV show from the very beginning, for six years, earns you a little more than the often derogatory sobriquet Fan. We aficionados are not owed anything by anybody, but nevertheless, our investment of time and enthusiasm created an imbalance that was not satisfied in the end.

Henry Ian Cusick in LostNeo Desmond enters Deus Ex MachinaThe Source

As my frustration at being cheated subsides, another problematic pop cultural touchstone came to mind. Certain parallels between Lost and The Matrix trilogy now seem obvious, and it’s not just that both hinge on a mysterious, glowing, ill-defined “Source.”

  1. Start out strong with a very science fiction-y, mostly plot-driven narrative. The characters are marginally interesting, but the focus is on scenario and story. Viewers’ imaginations are teased, speculation abounds, and sequels are demanded.
  2. Follow up with a sequel that reveals a loose framework of philosophy supporting the science fiction conceit. Whether it genuinely inspired the original work or was bolted on after the fact is open to debate. Simultaneously amp up the soap-opera cheesiness concerning flat characters that fans aren’t really invested in. (For what it’s worth, I contend that The Matrix Reloaded – the second in the trilogy – is not only underrated, but in fact the best of the series, despite the nearly universal opinion that both sequels were failures)
  3. Contrive a violent, action-packed ending that A. strains to fit around the philosophical core (kinda sorta maybe) and B. focuses on character melodrama (tragic deaths, romantic pining, etc.). Myriad story issues are neglected and treated as merely peripheral to the creators’ primary concerns.

In short, the creative duos behind Lost and The Matrix mistakenly assumed fans were more interested in the philosophical angle and thin characters than in the narrative. And maybe, just maybe, some of us wondered why we couldn’t have it both ways: a cracking good story with a strong subtext of mysticism and philosophy. As every high school creative writing teacher must explain to students that keep turning in thinly veiled retellings of Bible stories: just because an allegory fits (kinda sorta maybe), it doesn’t necessarily mean there’s any additional meaning to be construed. For The Wachowski Brothers, it was Jean Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation. For Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof, it was John Locke, David Hume, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, etc. (to be fair, they also leaned heavily on writers outside the realm of philosophy, including everyone from George Lucas to Stephen Hawking).

Keanu Reeves in The MatrixDesmond Neo enters The Source Deus Ex Machina

If, in the end, Cuse and Damon Lindelof neglected their storytelling responsibilities, they had already neatly set up two excuses for them to fall back upon:

  1. That Lost’s appeal was really the characters, and fans ought to be pleased that they all lived happily ever after, after a fashion.
  2. That Lost is really an allegory for a melange of works of philosophy, and that if you don’t get it, you’re a right-brainer too hung up on Star Trek-esque hard sci-fi to have your mind expanded, dude.

I don’t think I would be so upset if Cuse and Linedlof weren’t so outrageously full of themselves and self-congratulatory in interviews (The Wachowskis are probably right to refrain from publicity). At least Lindelof seemed conscious of how their work might be received. He told Wired Magazine:

Locke is now the voice of a very large subset of the audience who believes that when Lost is all said and done, we will have wasted six years of our lives, that we were making it up as we went along, and that there’s really no purpose. And Jack is now saying, “the only thing I have left to cling to is that there’s got to be something really cool that’s going to happen, because I have really, really fucking suffered.”

Maybe Jack and Locke were both right; the show now appears to have been a headlong hurdle into a faux-mystical conundrum, leaving behind countless abandoned plot threads as so much narrative shrapnel. There is no shortage of blog posts clogging the internet with lists of unresolved mysteries (including my own). Cuse dug himself in deeper, in conversation with the New York Times:

our goal is when we’re breaking stories, how are we going to really make each one of these commercial breaks really exciting. Those questions led to a lot of really intense scenes and cool reversals and surprises, and I guess it must have been how Dickens would cliffhanger the end of his serials in the newspaper when he was writing them to try to get people to show up the next day.

Cool like Dickens, eh? Wait, it gets better. In the recap special “The Final Journey” that preceded the final episode “The End,” they actually had the balls to call their series “Shakespearean,” which I think automatically disqualifies them from being taken seriously.

As for The Matrix, I think it’s telling that there’s literally a character in the third film named “Deus Ex Machina.”


Must read: Philosophy in Lost

Must read: The Matrix Explained

Official Lost site: abc.go.com/shows/lost

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Surrogates

Surrogates movie poster

 

Surrogates is an elegantly literal twist on the classic sci-fi theme of living through avatars. Cyberpunk writers William Gibson and Neal Stephenson pioneered virtual reality as a setting for the dramatic exaggeration of issues first sparked by the very beginnings of internet chat rooms. Their predictions have already come true, in part, in the form of social networking and immersive games like Second Life and World of Warcraft. Surrogates takes this conceit one step further, but fails to address moss of the questions it raises. To look deeper than I think the film supports, you might start to think about the personas we craft for ourselves in different contexts, how we dress and behave in the privacy of our homes versus how we do at work or play.

Rosamund Pike in Surrogates

Directed by Jonathan Mostow (of the excellent nail-biter Breakdown, but also the dud Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines), the film is based on the comic book The Surrogates by Robert Venditti and Brett Weldele. The premise requires a long, involved prologue necessary just to explain it. This very near future is defined by the technology for remote-controlled androids, which are not unlike cars: affordable enough for the majority of the population to own one, available in tiered models that reflect your income and taste, and a way of life ingrained into society just as much as cars have shaped cities and the highways that network them together.

Taken to its logical extreme, a world populated by remote controlled robots affects everything from the workplace to warfare. Beauty parlors have morphed into something like hi-tech auto repair shops, where people trick their surrogates out with new rubber faces and super-strong limbs. Patriot Act-like mass surveillance is conducted through the robots’ very eyes, without their owners’ permission, in an impossible-to-miss metaphor for Bush-era warrantless wiretaps. War is now a deathless abstract resembling a computer game: faceless drones teem distant battlegrounds in a sick parody of today’s airborne Predator drones and precision-guided missiles. Notice also the spotless art direction: everything is clean because robots don’t eat or litter.

When so much of the fictional ramifications are thought out, it’s disappointing when so many other obvious implications are left unclear. We’re told the crime rate has fallen dramatically since most people started living through robot surrogates, but why, necessarily? Perhaps because there’s no such thing as raping or murdering a robot. But why do FBI agents have such luxurious homes, if their jobs are less necessary in this utopia?

Radha Mitchell and Bruce Willis in Surrogates

One interesting wrinkle barely touched upon is that some characters, including Greer (Bruce Willis) and his wife Maggie (Rosamund Pike), have selected surrogates modeled on their own natural physical appearances. Younger, stronger, and more virile, perhaps, but recognizably their idealized likenesses. There are only a few examples of users that opt to mix race and/or genders, let alone go to further extremes. The most outwardly unusual looking surrogates we see merely have impossible complexions. Perhaps the Greers are not fully committed to living this way. Why not explore this point more? A failure of the imagination.

But by far the biggest absurdity is the claim that 98% of the population lives through surrogates. The film would have been better off by sidestepping the question of whether or not much of the population could afford state-of-the-art consumer electronics. If only a portion of the population in 2010 has access to things like health care and broadband, it’s certainly absurd to pretend for even a silly sci-fi movie that we all might some day be able to afford personal robots. But then again, there are hundreds of millions of cars in use worldwide today, so perhaps it is not that outrageous to hypothesize that someday we all might be remotely piloting some kind of robot around all day every day.

While many other people, including his wife, choose to live life through their surrogates, FBI agents are given turbocharged loaner models in some kind of perk akin to today’s company cars. Greer behaves differently as himself or when working through his surrogate. He spouts tough, sarcastic, noir-ish detective dialogue when working, but turns meek and emotional when living as a “meatball.”

Ving Rhames and James Cromwell appear in disappointing fleeting roles. Rosamund Pike is obviously very beautiful, but her wide circular glassy eyes frankly look slightly odd from certain angles, making her an excellent casting choice.

There are fewer android-related special effects than you might imagine, especially when compared to Westworld (read The Dork Report review), The Stepford Wives, Alien, and A.I., all of which revel in revealing robotic guts beneath rubber skin (images one might even fetishize as a literal “cyberporn”). Rather, the film’s best special effect is when a surrogate deactivates and comes to a complete halt. I can’t guess how it was done, but it’s clearly more complicated than simply freezing the frame. It’s very eerie to see a person, however artificial-seeming, simply and silently freeze as the light of life goes out of their eyes.

A ostentatious dangling plot thread about Greer’s dead son goes nowhere. Even the revelation of what caused his death is a misfire, and has no impact upon the story. Why would a painful loss in the family compel the Greers to live virtual lives? Everyone else is only doing it because they want to appear attractive.

The final moments are lame and non-dramatic, relying on unseen newscasters to explicitly outline the themes of the movie, for the slower members of the audience, perhaps.


Official movie site: www.chooseyoursurrogate.com

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Westworld

Westworld movie poster

 

The late Michael Crichton is primarily known as a bestselling novelist, but somewhat less so as a screenwriter, feature film director, and television producer (he was one of the co-creators of the blockbuster series E.R.). Characteristic novels Jurassic Park and The Andromeda Strain are built upon fascinating speculative science with thrilling story potential, spoiled by wafer-thin characters and simplistic plots. His 1973 thriller Westworld suffers from the same syndrome. Despite its high-minded origins in speculative science, the movie is simple in structure and theme. It’s not unusual for science fiction films to be overtly based on Western tropes (the best example that comes to mind is Outland), but Westworld is a hybrid with equal parts of each. The second half is basically an extended chase sequence, punctuated by a few classic horror movie tropes.

Yul Brynner in WestworldThere’s a face off in the corner

Westworld posits a future in which robotics and artificial intelligence have advanced enough to enable a new market for entertainment and leisure. The futuristic vacation resort Delos is a forerunner to Jurassic Park: an experience adventure for the affluent, powered by untested advanced technology. Imagine Disney World-like animatronics taken to the next level: semiautonomous robots roam an immersive environment to serve as interactive servants, sex toys, and target practice.

Crichton skips over the entire issue of how these machines achieve consciousness, making the common movie fallacy that robots = artificial intelligence. If they are basically animatronic machines, how did they evolve an instinct for self-preservation? If these droids are not feeling actual rebellion and murderous vindictiveness, is it a virus or malfunction? On a more practical level, there appears to be a plot hole in how all robots but The Gunslinger (Yul Brynner) appear to completely vanish after murdering the Delos’ staff and visitors.

Richard Benjamin and James Brolin in WestworldJames Brolin & Richard Benjamin take the vacation of the future, today

Brynner’s may wear the same costume as in The Magnificent Seven (read The Dork Report review), but The Gunslinger’s true analog is closer to Jaws and Moby Dick. He pops up again and again, seemingly unkillable, possessed of an unexpressed, inexplicable motivation to hunt one single man. He fixates on tourist John Blane (James Brolin) and remorselessly pursues him to the death, not unlike the implacable demons that haunt Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men, All the Pretty Horses, and Blood Meridian. Brynner isn’t given much in the way of dialog or character, but you can see he worked very hard on his physical performance. His bearing, posture, gait, and gaze are all unsettling. Far from a cartoonish robot figure, The Gunslinger is really inhuman, weird, and creepy.

Westworld, like Jurassic Park, seems to be a vague cautionary tale against toying with advanced science. The famously science-minded Crichton (an M.D.) is not simply demonizing science itself, but rather its arrogant misuse. If the first mistake is to build machines more complex than the human mind can understand, the second is to bet our lives upon them.

Delos is a fantasy world where people can kill or fuck anything they want. In other words, a recipe for disaster. Later science fiction stories like Tron, The Matrix, and Caprica (read The Dork Report review) would typically stage similar morality plays in virtual reality. But I don’t get the sense that Westworld is criticizing the indulgence of humanity’s worst tendencies. Is it instead focusing on the mistreatment of semi-sentient beings as slaves? When the park is in working condition, the robots are prostituted and murdered over and over for humans’ entertainment. After they become conscious, we see one “female” robot reject a human’s sexual advances, while another is cruelly chained up in a dungeon. Neither seems to be expressing much in the way of grief or resentment. Instead, we are perhaps meant to see them as innocents that are simply seeking a little dignity.

Stray observations:

  • The sequel movie Futureworld (1976) and TV series Beyond Westworld (1980) are not available on DVD or online at this time of writing.
  • Young James Brolin looks so much at times like Christian Bale does today that it’s almost creepy.
  • Even Delos’ animals are robotic, perhaps alluding to the moral tests regarding the treatment of animals (robotic or real) in Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. Even more on the nose, Blane finds a robot snake in the desert, foreshadowing the ones we see for sale in Blade Runner.

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Battlestar Galactica: The Plan

Battlestar Galactica The Plan poster

 

Put simply, Battlestar Galactica: The Plan is a clip show done right, in disguise as an original movie for television. Whatever else its intended purpose, it must also do double-duty as a kind of coda, appendix, or postscript to the celebrated television series (2004-2009). But is it one final cash-in, before the sets are struck and the cast scatters to the winds, or a noble attempt to address neglected aspects of the complex mythos that many fans felt weren’t justly served by the controversial final episode? Which, for the record, I loved for its audacity, while still sympathizing with the contingent of fans that felt it strained plausibility and raised more questions than it answered.

The Plan incorporates footage from across all four seasons, seamlessly melded with new material written by Jane Espenson, who wrote for the show during its fourth season, and directed by Edward James Olmos, who starred in the series as Commander Bill Adama and helmed several individual episodes. The DVD bonus features, while typically hagiographic, rightly point out that Olmos obviously had an intimate knowledge of the full story arc as well as a strong relationship with the entire cast, so he was probably the best choice to helm The Plan. Curiously, Executive Producer Ronald D. Moore is missing-in-action from the credits and DVD bonus features.

Dean Stockwell in Battlestar Galactica: The PlanBrother Cavil (in hat) and Brother Cavil (not in hat) face their ends

In a narrative conceit shared with the previous Battlestar Galactica special movie Razor (2007), key portions of the show’s continuity are retold from a different perspective, in this case that of the Cylons, a fractious race of synthetic lifeforms with a (shall we say) complicated relationship with their human creators. All but one of the actors portraying the twelve Cylon models appear in new sequences here (Lucy Lawless being the sole holdout), joining some of the original human characters (missing James Callis, Mary McDonnell, Katee Sackhoff, Tahmoh Penikett, and Jamie Bamber). Oddly, President Roslin (McDonnell) is the only major character to not even appear in archival clips, being very conspicuous in her absence. Perhaps the actress objected to the script, or demanded too much money?

I personally don’t believe the series proper necessarily needed to tell more of the story than the writers chose to before its final episode (which is off-limits anyway, taking place chronologically after the events seen in The Plan). But if the goal of The Plan was to fill in some of the perceived gaps, it’s ultimately unsatisfying for not addressing some of the truly puzzling mysteries, particularly the still-unseen thirteenth Cylon called Daniel and the true nature of Starbuck’s (Sackhoff) death, resurrection, and subsequent visions. What new plot information and character insights we do get are nice, but inessential. We see more of the Cylon surprise attack, with the human colonies destroyed one by one, but how does this expand the story beyond indulging in some CGI apocalypse porn? But to The Plan’s credit, some of the most tantalizing mysteries are probably best left up to our imaginations. Not without reason, fans spent the final season wondering how Starbuck could be anything but a Cylon, only to find she was something else entirely. I would argue the writers chose to not drag the mystery down into mundanity, like the fatal mistake George Lucas made by providing a pseudo-scientific definition of The Force in Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace.

Grace Park in Battlestar Galactica: The PlanBoomer, true to her name, is a ticking time bomb

So what is the eponymous Plan? As we saw in the first moments of the original series, the religiously-motivated Cylon race attempts to totally annihilate humanity in one fell swoop. A small fleet of human stragglers escapes, with a small number of Cylons unwillingly trapped among them (surely a frustrating situation for creatures who expected to perish in the cataclysm and be reborn in a heaven free of humans). The major revelation of The Plan is that much of the violent conflict we saw in the original series was actually a desperately improvised plan by this ragtag cell of partly-unwilling soldiers. Meet the new plan, same as the old plan: genocide. So we now understand these few Cylons to be a struggling terrorist cell.

The central characters that drive the action are a pair of Ones/Cavils (Dean Stockwell), whose pending execution provides a framing device to the entire movie. Also significantly expanded are Anders (Michael Trucco) and two very different versions of Four/Simon (Rick Worthy). We learn a little more about the hapless Five/Aaron (Matthew Bennett), the explanation for his relative insignificance in the show being that he is simply a little dim, often serving as an inept pawn of Cavil. We learn how the Eight that lived as Boomer actually functioned (she was a sleeper agent who genuinely believed she was human, but was brought in and out of this illusion by Cavil – with her human side eventually winning over). We meet an additional Six (Tricia Helfer) who worked undercover as a prostitute, contributing little to the story beyond more T&A. Speaking of, The Plan features a great deal of gratuitous full-frontal male and female nudity, not motivated by plot or character, and seemingly only there for titillation and a faux sense of realism.

Tricia Helfer in Battlestar Galactica: The PlanEven the most diehard Battlestar Galactica fan may have trouble remembering which Six this is

Most of left-behind Cylons become contaminated, or at least influenced, by proximity with humans. Another Cavil is trapped on the post-apocalyptic Caprica with Anders, simultaneously revering him as a father of the Cylon race while challenging his empathetic leadership skills. How they all survive radiation poisoning isn’t explained. The Caprica-bound Cavil’s mind rapidly evolves to the point where he becomes worlds apart from his bitter, cruel twin in the fleet, who remains the sole Cylon purely dedicated to the original plan.

Was the project misconceived? It is certainly in keeping with the classically bleak Battlestar Galactica style and tone; a new character is a helpless little orphan kid, very out of keeping for a show that continually rejects cute & cuddly stereotypes, and I should have known that his fate would not be a good one. By design, The Plan is resolutely intended for diehard Battlestar Galactica fans with encyclopedic knowledge of the show’s mythos. I consider myself a big fan, and have seen every episode, but there was much I hadn’t memorized, and about which I remain confused. For instance, I can’t recall if it was ever explained exactly why the so-called Final Five Cylons were implanted among human society to live as humans for several decades, and why only one incarnation of Cavil knew of their existence. It seems a mistake to produce a big-budget TV movie for a very narrow audience of superfans that can remember all this stuff, months after their favorite show stops airing. The Plan certainly won’t attract virgin viewers, as anyone interested in the series would certainly start with a DVD of the original 2004 miniseries. I don’t even want to think about how The Plan must have seemed to any unfortunate viewers who had never seen Battlestar Galactica at all, let alone internalized its mythos.

It’s hard to see how The Plan can be anything other than the true end of the series. Getting this much of the cast back together for one TV movie must have been a real feat, so doing it again in the future seems unlikely. The prequel series Caprica (read The Dork Report review of the pilot episode) is set far enough in Battlestar Galactica’s past that much of the cast cannot logically guest star (although, upon reflection, it might be possible to see some of the Final Five, who might be living among humans at this point). So The Plan is most likely the end.


Official movie site: www.syfy.com/battlestar

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Caprica

Caprica poster Alessandra Toressani

 

The recently concluded series Battlestar Galactica (2003-2009) was critically acclaimed and much beloved by a relatively small group of fans and critics that appreciated the brainy show’s bleak, pessimistic view of humanity. It will certainly live forever as a classic achievement in television, but the common consensus is that it failed to reach the wide audience it could have. Executive Producer Ron Moore told Variety “‘We had viewers say that if they were able to trick their wives or girlfriends into watching Galactica, they loved it. But with the name Battlestar Galactica screaming science fiction,’ he adds, ‘there was just such a high hurdle to get female viewers to even try it.'” So comes Caprica, a prequel ostensibly engineered from the beginning for greater appeal.

In an original move, its unrated (read: blood ‘n’ boobies) movie-length pilot episode premiered day-and-date on DVD and digital download in May 1999, nearly a year before the series proper. It preserves some of the signature vernacular of its parent series, including technobabble like “Cylon” (a marketing term short for, we finally learn, Cybernetic Lifeform Node), the trip-on-the-tongue “gods damn it,” the infamous euphemism “frak,” and even racial epithets like “dirt eater.” The character of Bill Adama (Edward James Olmos in Battlestar Galactica) appears as a young boy, and one supposes we might later even see some of the “final five” Cylons from the original series (Michael Hogan, Kate Vernon, Michael Trucco, Rekha Sharma, and Aaron Douglas), who ought to have been running around in some form at this point in BSG chronology. Some of the same core themes are still present, particularly religious intolerance and families coping with catastrophic disaster. Even the special effects are up to par with Galactica’s groundbreaking spaceship battles, although applied to spectacularly convincing digital cityscapes.

Eric Stoltz and Esai Morales in Battlestar Galactica CapricaCaprica, like Battlestar Galactica, holds that there are no Surgeon General warnings in space

But there are significantly worrisome signs that indicate a fatal miscalculation on The SyFy Channel’s part (worse than their astonishingly stupid rechristening from “Sci-Fi”): Caprica hinges on two men and three annoying teens, relegating its only two adult female characters to the sidelines. It may very well be the case that many women were discouraged from giving Battlestar Galactica a chance, but it’s also true that the show featured a bevy of significant, complex women: self-destructive firebrand Starbuck (Katee Sackhoff), president of all humanity Laura Roslin (Mary McDonnell), Dick Cheney-esque war criminal Captain Cain (Michelle Forbes), and conflicted Cylons Three (Lucy Lawless), Six (Tricia Helfer), and Eight (Grace Park). So far, at least, Caprica includes only two lead female roles, neither of whom figures strongly in the pilot episode: Amanda Graystone (Paula Malcomson, from Deadwood) and Sister Clarice Willow (Polly Walker, from Rome).

But maybe this gender inequality makes a kind of sense. The real core dynamic between the two male leads makes for classic storytelling. Industrialist Daniel Graystone (Eric Stoltz) invented a virtual reality playground called the Holoband, and has since turned to developing weaponized robotics. Joseph Adama (Esai Morales) is a crooked lawyer tied to an offworld organized crime syndicate that put him through law school, and further control him with threats. A terrorist bombing claims their daughters (and Adama’s wife), and the two men later bond over mutual grief, coffee, and cigarettes (like Battlestar Galactica, doctors and nutritionists many thousands of years in our past haven’t yet warned people about the dangers of caffeine and nicotine). The two men may be of different planets, races, and religions, but become bound by complicity in an act of industrial espionage that leads to a murder of an elected official (cast and costumed in thick glasses to resemble Dr. Tyrell (Joe Turkel) from Blade Runner).

If one of the two had been female, the viewer might naturally expect a romantic subplot. Caprica’s creators may have avoided this kind of distraction, but the downside is that the primary narrative conflict is between two men, and the only two adult female characters are solely defined by their relationships with the men and/or kids in their lives. Daniel and Amanda’s daughter Zoe (Alessandra Toressani) is killed in a terrorist attack, but we never see the icy Amanda mourn as we do Daniel. Her character is simply Daniel’s wife, nothing more. Sister Willow, at least, is revealed by the end to be more than she seems. Here’s hoping we see Amanda and Sister Willow significantly expanded in future episodes.

Another thing Battlestar Galactica got right was to sidestep altogether the trap of annoying child characters. It was an adult show, for intelligent adults. Caprica obviously also didn’t learn from a lesson from Jericho (2006-2008), a generally smart show whose weakest characters were a pair of whiney teens that were thankfully written out. Out of Caprica’s trio of kids, two die but unfortunately come back to a kind of immortality (if you only counted one, check out the deleted scenes available on the DVD edition).

Eric Stoltz, Paula Malcomson, and Esai Morales in Battlestar Galactica CapricaWait, there was a woman in Caprica? Let’s hope poor Paula Malcomson actually gets some scenes in the full series

The first 10 minutes pack in a massive download of important information, especially tricky for any viewers not already versed in the fictional Galactica universe. Certain key points are reiterated once things slow down later, but a new viewer tuning in cold might get the sense they were supposed to be versed in all this stuff already, instead of just getting teased with a barrage of info to be unpacked later. When a title card reads “58 years before The Fall,” Galactica fans will catch the reference to the sneak attack by the Cylons that nearly eradicates their human creators, the inciting incident that motivated the entire story arc of the parent series.

We then cut directly to the decadent V Club, implying this civilization’s late-Rome-like decadence to be one of the direct causes of the coming Fall. A fully immersive virtual reality simulation not unlike The Matrix, the V Club is full of teens dancing to dated techno, ogling hot lesbians, making simulated human sacrifice, and squaring off in a fight club knockoff. Its banality betrays a failure of imagination not just on the part of Caprica’s teens, but also on the filmmakers. A rebellious generation co-opts a virtual world in which they can do absolutely anything they want, and all they can come up with is a single nightclub that only spins techno from Earth’s 1990s? No gay boys want to make out in public too? Nobody wants to fly? Nobody wants to enhance their virtual appearance, say, to make themselves younger, more beautiful, covered in fur or made of diamond?

The titular Caprica is the capital of twelve planets colonized by humanity. We only caught glimpses of its future before it is decimated in the first episode of Battlestar Galactica, so there is plenty of unexplored territory for a new prequel series to fill in. Its fashions resemble 1950s America, perhaps meant to capitalize on the popularity of the Showtime series Mad Men. We’re supposed to agree that this is a corrupt, decadent society on the cusp of collapse. But how, exactly? They’re playing god(s) by delving into dangerous technological areas like robotic weapons and artificial intelligence, or at least a means of recording a human individual’s consciousness into a computer. They’ve designed virtual reality systems capable of simulating any desire. The society is racist to the core; Taurans (from the sister planet Taurus) are called “dirt eaters” and associated with organized crime (although to be fair, the latter actually is true – they seem modeled on the immigrant Sicilian mafia of 1920s America). Like Michael Corleone in the Godfather trilogy, Joseph is ostensibly an upstanding citizen forced to compromise with his heritage. Unable to completely extricate himself from the mob, he tries to Capricanize everything else is his life: changing his surname to Adams and raising his son as a Caprican, all to the consternation of his mother.

Alessandra Toressani in Battlestar Galactica CapricaZoe, genius hacker, goes clubbing in The Matrix

This society’s most truly dangerous trait appears to be its ingrained religious intolerance. The population is almost uniformly polytheistic, and intolerant of the minority monotheists. Underground militants have formed the Soldiers of the One, a cult that believes in a combination of monotheism and anti-science. Their secret representative Sister Willow recruits teen students from her exclusive private school. Zealous Ben (Avan Jogia), in turn, drafts Zoe and her friend Magda, and later stages the suicide bombing that claims the Graystone and Adama families. Ben was presumably being manipulated by Sister Willow (Polly Walker), who also had designs on Zoe’s brilliant computer skills that didn’t necessarily hinge on her remaining alive.

The biggest addition to the Battlestar Galactica mythos is a deeper look into artificial intelligence. Like the Terminator franchise, I appreciate Caprica’s emphasis that developing artificial intelligence is a separate pursuit than building robots. Too many science fiction stories seem to equate the two, including Battlestar Galactica itself in its controversial final episode (for the record, I loved its audacity). The Day the Earth Stood Still and Forbidden Planet’s humanoid robots have minds of its own, but what about being robots makes them so, as opposed to immobile computers? Blade Runner’s replicants and A.I.’s boy robots look human first, and it is never asked what exactly makes them sentient beings (unless the question is how we anthropomorphize things that outwardly seem human). Artificial intelligence is almost always automatically evil in movies such as Terminator and 2001: A Space Odyssey. It is rarely inherently innocent, as in A.I.: Artificial Intelligence. Caprica features two disturbing scenes of a human consciousness waking up trapped in a crude robot body. That’s called over-egging your pudding. Also creepy: the advances made by Zoe lead directly to Daniel’s clumsy warrior robots becoming the effective killing machines christened Cylons.

Speaking of, how could a luminary in the cybernetics business not realize his own daughter was a genius-level hacker? Apparently working on her own, Zoe comes up with a means of preserving the 100 terabytes of human data stored in the human brain, and complement it with 300 MB of digital detritus that person has left behind on Caprica’s equivalents of Google and Facebook: medical records, playlists, email, searches, social networking, etc. Her breakthrough allows Graystone to resurrect Adama’s late daughter as well (although we don’t see how he obtained her 100 terabytes of brain matter). The resultant duplicate quickly goes insane, so Zoe is somehow special, the only digital human mind that doesn’t go mad.

Some awfully big events are revealed in the DVD edition’s deleted scenes: Adama learns early on that Zoe was involved in the bombing, adding an extra dimension to his interactions with her father. Also, boy bomber Ben’s mind was also successfully uploaded into the V Club by Sister Willow, suggesting that Zoe might not be so unique after all, and that her scientific breakthroughs may have been in part developed by the Soldiers of the One. Both of these strike me as great layers of complexity that would have only added to the story.

Note: the above is a revised, expended, and corrected version of The Dork Report’s original review of the DVD edition, published on May 17, 2009.


Official movie site: syfy.com/caprica

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This’ll Ruin My Day: James Cameron Goes Down the Digital Rabbit Hole in Avatar

Avatar movie poster

 

Avatar is the perfect distillation of all of James Cameron’s worst tendencies: an obsession with marines (while trying to have it both ways: worshipping the hardware and lingo, but casting them as villains), embarrassingly heinous dialogue (undercutting every dramatic moment with somebody droning flat one-liners like “oh shit” or “this’ll ruin my day”), a token wise Latina available for cleavage and wisecracks (Michelle Rodriguez, more wise than most of the white and/or blue people, anyway), a greater interest in technology over people (both on screen and behind the scenes), and a core anti-war message contradicted by glorified slaughter and explosions.

If Cameron had a purpose in mind for Avatar other than as a showreel of the latest technological breakthroughs, it seems to be an endorsement of violent protest. If so, the civilian population of Iran might find something of interest here. More the pity the Na’vi didn’t happen to be green, in which case critics might be discussing the film in terms of current events instead of being distracted by the shiny special effects masking the soulless narrative and blank acting (with the significant exception of a very funny Giovanni Ribisi and especially Zoe Saldaña, who manages to make an impression despite not technically appearing on screen — as a conventional photograph, anyway).

Yes YesStory Roger Dean AvatarDetail from Roger Dean’s sleeve for Yes’ YesStory on the left, scene from Avatar on the right.

The official Avatar talking points require mention of the sundry technological breakthroughs that come tethered to every Cameron film, mostly having to do with computers. The Terminator (1984) and Aliens (1986) were relatively quaint in their utilization of models and stop-motion animation, but The Abyss (1989), Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991), and Titanic (1997) each debuted incrementally advanced computer animation techniques, for the first time fully integrated with live action photography. I clearly recall watching T2 with an audience gasping and applauding in amazement during a shot in which the liquid metal robot T-1000 (Robert Patrick) literally turned itself inside out. There’s nothing in Avatar to compare to that communal moment of delighted awe in 1991; my 2010 Avatar audience oohed and aahed during the first 3D effects visible in the attached trailers (mostly for disposable kiddie movies like Despicable Me), but our eyeballs were already beaten into submission by the time the main feature rolled, and the packed house sat silently through the 162 minute-long barrage of computer-processed flim-flam.

I’ll spend a paragraph on the positive: Steven Soderbergh, who previously collaborated with Cameron on Solaris, reportedly said after seeing the film that “There’s gonna be before that movie and after“. It is inarguable that Avatar marks the tipping point in at least two key filmmaking techniques we’re certain to see even more of in the immediate future: 3D photography and virtual filmmaking (the congruence of photorealistic CGI with motion capture, basically a turbocharged update to the old practice of rotoscoping). The superlative 3D is applied equally well to both the live-action and animated sequences (indeed, most of the film is a melding of the two). It’s more refined and subtle than any 3D film I’ve seen before, including U23D, Beowulf, and Coraline, all of which resorted to in-your-face showing off common since the early days of The Creature From the Black Lagoon (1954) and Dial M for Murder (1954). Meanwhile, the motion-captured CGI characters are even more smoothly integrated with live-action photography than previous high-water marks like the T-1000 in T2, Jar Jar Binks (Ahmed Best) in George Lucas’ Star Wars prequel trilogy, and Gollum (Andy Serkis) in Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy. And that’s not even to mention the startlingly detailed and immersive computer-generated backgrounds and environments.

Yes Keys to Ascension Roger Dean AvatarDetail from Roger Dean’s cover for Yes’ Keys to Ascension on the left, Avatar on the right. As artist & filmmaker Dave McKean rightly opined on Twitter, “Roger Dean should sue!”

The other big talking point is of course its staggering expense. It’s hard to remember now, years after Titanic’s box office receipts broke records worldwide, but its $200 million budget was originally an object of ridicule and put the very existence of two vast corporations at stake (20th Century Fox and Paramount). Avatar inflates the accountants’ calculations to the insane level of circa $237 million, but Cameron’s instincts appear again to have been right; Avatar has already (at this time of writing) earned a billion dollars worldwide, a mere two weeks after release.

As guest Dork Reporter Snarkbait wisely predicts, 10 years from now Avatar’s special effects will be laughable, and all that will be left is the story. And when that story is a warmed-over retelling of the European conquest of America (more recently retold in Terrence Malick’s The New World and as SlashFilm notes, Disney’s Pocahontas) set in a sci-fi world seemingly stolen from the paintings of Roger Dean, isn’t the hundreds of millions of dollars worth of technology and years of production all for naught? It’s impossible not to compare this folly to the Star Wars prequels, made long after Lucas fell down the rabbit hole of obsession with filmmaking technology and no longer had anyone around him willing or capable to say no. This Dork Reporter happened to watch (500) Days of Summer and Up in the Air right before and after Avatar, and can attest that there is no substitute for good writing and acting. People will still be rewatching films like those long after Avatar is forgotten.


Official site: www.avatarmovie.com

Must read: The blog Papyrus Watch catches the use of the cliched font in the movie logo and subtitles. Papyrus was designed in 1982 and is now commonly found preinstalled on most computers.

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The Pod People Film Festival: The Invasion

The Pod People Film Festival

Welcome to The Pod People Film Festival, The Dork Report’s third mini movie retrospective. After catching up with Ridley Scott and George A. Romero, we now take a look at four adaptations of Jack Finney’s novel The Body Snatchers, plus one unofficial homage / satire.

  1. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)
  2. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)
  3. Body Snatchers (1993)
  4. The Faculty (1998)
  5. The Invasion (2007)

The Invasion movie poster

 

Nicole Kidman must be one of the unluckiest stars in Hollywood, having recently starred in at least two big-budget catastrophes. Frank Oz’ The Stepford Wives (2004) was sabotaged by cast members dropping out, extensive reshoots, and competing script revisions that left significant logical plot holes in the finished film. Similarly, Invasion is best described as quite simply a broken movie. One full year after the completion of principal photography under director Oliver Hirschbiegel (Downfall), producer Joel Silver contracted Andy and Larry Wachowski (The Matrix, Speed Racer – read The Dork Report review) to write new scenes to be directed by their protégé James McTeigue (V for Vendetta – read The Dork Report review). Warner Bros. expended $10 million on 17 extra days of shooting in an attempt to reshape what was reportedly a more internal, psychological suspense piece into more commercial thriller.

Nicole Kidman in The InvasionDo you ever get the feeling that you’re in a terrible movie…?

After a brief, promising opening scene (a flash-forward, we later learn, to a world almost fallen to an alien attack), Invasion quickly descends into full-on sci-fi action cliché. A space shuttle disintegrates on re-entry, carrying a payload of virulent spores bent on world domination. After the real-life loss of the crews of the shuttles Challenger (1986) and Columbia (2003), this spectacular special effects sequence is about as tasteful as watching CGI skyscrapers crumble.

One of the Wachowski’s late additions was a ridiculously long car chase through the streets of Washington DC (filmed in Baltimore), with psychiatrist Carol (Kidman) behind the wheel of a literally burning Mustang. It’s beyond implausible that a shrink would have the driving skills of a modern-day Bullet (Steve McQueen) or Popeye O’Doyle (Gene Hackman in The French Connection). In fact, Kidman damaged more than her career: she broke several ribs during an accident incurred while shooting the sequence.

The biggest problem is not the clumsily grafted-on action spectacle but the choppy screenplay. It’s painfully obvious to spot the seams between Dave Kajganich’s original script, which one can infer would have made for a more subtle horror story about an alien invasion accomplished without bullets or the exploding of infrastructure, and The Wachowski Brothers’ reduction to the lowest common denominator. The movie is at its best when Carol senses the subtle changes of her city’s daily routine as the invasion spreads. It’s also interesting as she encounters other uninfected survivors that have learned to hide in plain sight. Veronica Cartwright, who appeared in Philip Kaufman’s 1978 version, appears as one of Carol’s patients who is apparently naturally immune. She counsels her to pretend to be a Stepford Wife in order to avoid detection by the dispassionate alien intelligences that have taken over most of the population. But these moody sequences are all too brief in-between the car chases and explosions.

Nicole Kidman in The Invasion“Our world is a better world”

A huge chunk feels missing from the middle; the second act should be a slow discovery of the details of the invasion and a gradual escalation of the conflict. But Carol and her doctor paramour Ben (Daniel Craig) leap to the accurate conclusion of an alien invasion based on only a few observed cases of mild weirdness around them, clearing the rest of the movie’s running time for a series of chase sequences. Worst of all is yet another criminal misuse of poor Jeffrey Wright (reunited with 007 co-star Daniel Craig), a brilliant actor saddled with most of the script’s laughable technobabble that leaves no room to the imagination (the original 1956 Invasion of the Body Snatchers was arguably not specific enough, but the 1978 version found just the right level of gory detail without getting bogged down in tedious pseudoscience).

Jack Finney’s classic sci-fi novel The Body Snatchers has been adapted over and over into movies that illuminate the concerns of the times. Don Siegel’s 1956 original was a thinly-veiled critique of McCarthyism. Philip Kaufman’s 1978 remake also made sense in a post-Vietnam and Watergate era. Abel Ferrara applied the metaphor to blind obedience and conformity in the military in his 1993 Body Snatchers. Robert Rodríguez found the most perfect setting yet, as he satirized teen peer pressure in high school in The Faculty (1998). What does the oft-told Body Snatchers tale mean today? Invasion is the fourth version of novel, and the second to ditch the notion of replacement bodies. As in The Faculty: the aliens are puppetmaster-like parasites that take over human bodies without permanently harming them. Invasion makes a fleeting reference to other nations publicly combating the alien insurgents. The US is the only one to hide behind a cover story that has the opposite intended effect, only further enabling the invasion to succeed. Invasion might have been a better film if it had focused more on this glimmer of political satire than on Shuttle disasters and burning Mustangs.


Official movie site: http://theinvasionmovie.warnerbros.com/

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The Pod People Film Festival: The Faculty

The Pod People Film Festival

Welcome to The Pod People Film Festival, The Dork Report’s third mini movie retrospective. After catching up with Ridley Scott and George A. Romero, we now take a look at four adaptations of Jack Finney’s novel The Body Snatchers, plus one unofficial homage / satire.

  1. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)
  2. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)
  3. Body Snatchers (1993)
  4. The Faculty (1998)
  5. The Invasion (2007)

The Faculty movie poster

 

We interrupt this retrospective look at the four official feature film adaptations of Jack Finney’s novel The Body Snatchers with a kind of bonus track, a remake in all but name, Robert Rodríguez’s The Faculty.

It may be a touch campy, but hugely entertaining. All four official versions are deadly serious, so it’s refreshing for The Faculty to play the concept for laughs. Rodríguez isn’t known for restraint, but most of the fun is likely attributable to Kevin Williamson, the writer of Scream, one of the most influential movies of the 1990s. Yes, I’m prepared to back that claim up: it was one of the first mainstream movies to be overtly Postmodern, and not in a stuffy college literature seminar sense, but one that found lowbrow thrills & chills from a highbrow intellectual perspective over the horror genre. That is, Scream was both a knowing satire of the horror movie genre, in which its own characters knowingly commented upon the events that befell them with all the knowledge that comes from being movie geeks well-versed in horror movie cliches, but was also simultaneously an actual functioning horror movie itself. Other 1990s movies along those lines were Wild Things (one of the sexiest, twistiest noirs ever made), Starship Troopers (a hilariously bleak vision of a fascistic world inherited by children), and even Shakespeare in Love’s playful plays-within-plays-within-a-movie (read The Dork Report review).

faculty_2.jpgThere’s be no more tears… in gym class

A prologue introduces us to the namesake faculty, from which the great (and sexy) Bebe Neuwirth checks out early, or at least seems to. The adult cast is wonderful overall, even though some parts are little more than cameos. Robert Patrick brings all of his ruthless Terminator T-1000 steeliness to Coach Willis (like Dr. David Kibner – Leonard Nimoy – in Philip Kaufman’s 1978 Invasion of the Body Snatchers, a villain both before and after the invasion), the glamorous Famke Janssen is an improbably mousy loner, Jon Stewart as a sympathetic science teacher, and Salma Hayek is hilarious in her brief appearance as Nurse Rosa Harper. On the downside, fat slob Harry Knowles of AintItCoolNews.com notoriety also haunts the faculty room (this was 1998, after all).

We finally meet the kids in a montage set to a cover version of Pink Floyd’s infamous antiauthoritarian anthem Another Brick in the Wall Part II, with onscreen text resembling Gerald Scarfe’s scrawled lettering on the original The Wall album sleeve. They’re a next-generation Breakfast Club comprised of every key high school demographic: goth loner Stokely (Clea DuVall), hot ice queen Delilah (Jordana Brewster), meathead athlete Stan (Shawn Hatosy), bad boy Zeke (Josh Hartnett), meek nerd Casey (Elijah Wood), and sweetness-and-light Southern belle Marybeth (Laura Harris).

faculty_1.jpgThis meeting of The Breakfast Club II is called to order

Zeke is a slacker genius with an awful haircut that hasn’t dated well. He has deliberately failed out in order to relive the glory of his senior year within the safe bubble of being Big Man on Campus. He peddles a powdered narcotic (actually mostly caffeine), drives a fast car, and makes the girls swoon. But underneath it all is an intellect missing an aim or purpose. Good for him, then, that an alien invasion gives him the opportunity to step up.

Troubled goth girl Stokely disguises herself as a lesbian to avoid human contact. One wonders why, then, she’s not hassled by the school’s other lesbians. Like cuddly misfit Allison (Ally Sheedy) in The Breakfast Club (1985), Stokely eventually conforms to straight-girl norms by dressing in pink and dating the jock. DuVall is said to be gay or bisexual, so I wonder how she felt about playing such a cop-out character. But this oddly conservative moment aside, the character is the key to the Postmodern, metafictional nature of the movie. Stokely is a science fiction fan that explicitly references Jack Finney’s novel The Body Snatchers (but not any of the movies). In fact, she disparages the book, claiming it’s a poor ripoff of Robert A. Heinlein’s The Puppet Masters.

All Body Snatcher movies to date featured sentient brussels sprouts that create evil duplicates of humans, destroyed the originals, all with the aim of bringing a form of peace and harmony: a uniform society in lockstep synchronicity. But these pod aliens are more overtly evil. These aquatic parasites that temporarily take over bodies are no emotionless drones, but are actually remarkably lusty. They clearly relish the sublimation of the students, and stage a football game like a Nazi Party rally.

All of which begs the question, if the aliens are like unleashed, uninhibited versions of our own ids, what’s the difference between them and, say, a high school kid hopped up on hormones? As one of them aptly puts it, “I’m not an alien, I’m just discontent.”


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The Pod People Film Festival: Body Snatchers (1993)

The Pod People Film Festival

Welcome to The Pod People Film Festival, The Dork Report’s third mini movie retrospective. After catching up with Ridley Scott and George A. Romero, we now take a look at four adaptations of Jack Finney’s novel The Body Snatchers, plus one unofficial homage / satire.

  1. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)
  2. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)
  3. Body Snatchers (1993)
  4. The Faculty (1998)
  5. The Invasion (2007)

Body Snatchers movie poster

 

Yet another remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers might seem an odd project for iconoclast director Abel Ferrara, known for gritty urban crime sagas centered around profoundly compromised protagonists. In stark contrast, the lead in Ferrara’s most conventional movie is a good-natured teenage girl, a world apart from the crazed Harvey Keitel of Bad Lieutenant or Christopher Walken of King of New York. Marti’s (Gabrielle Anwar) biggest problems are a nomadic lifestyle, a moody little brother, and a new stepmother.

This version of the bodysnatchers story sheds “Invasion” from the title, which is strange considering it ought to be the key word for a movie focused on the U.S. military, at home not long after the first Gulf War (a conflict thought to be resolved at the time). With America at peace and a Democrat in office, Body Snatchers was probably one of the first mainstream feature films to directly mention the conflict, along with Courage Under Fire (1996) — David O. Russell’s ruthless satire Three Kings being still some ways off. Abbreviating the title was a missed opportunity to play with the ambiguity between a military confirmed as professional, government-sanctioned invaders, and an extraterrestrial force that easily infiltrates them. But don’t worry, the word “Invasion” would be picked up again for Oliver Hirschbiegel’s 2007 abomination starring Nicole Kidman.

Gabrielle Anwar in Body SnatchersGabrielle, sweetie, you should know better than to take a bath during a horror movie…

On home soil, an Alabama army base under the command of General Platt (who else but R. Lee Ermey?) must suffer the indignity of bending over for The Environmental Protection Agency as it investigates the army’s storage of chemical weapons. The sympathetic Major Collins (Forest Whitaker) reports increasing cases of mental illness in his infirmary (paranoia, fear of sleep, etc.). He suspects the toxic chemicals, making it impossible to miss the allusion to the controversial Gulf War Syndrome.

Marti falls in love with helicopter pilot Tim (Billy Wirth), so bland and flat that it’s hard to tell if he’s a pod person (to be charitable, maybe this was a deliberate casting call, meant to keep the audience guessing). She is befriended by Platt’s punk daughter Jenn (Christine Elise), a refreshing dose of nonconformism among the rank and file – indeed her rebelliousness serves as a canary in the coal mine to measure the progress of the invasion. We genuinely feel for Marti’s little brother Andy (Reilly Murphy, a rare child actor that does not annoy) as he senses his school playmates are “bad” and witnesses his stepmother (Meg Tilly) die firsthand. Incidentally, Tilly’s performance as the pod-stepmother is excellently weird.

Meg Tilly in Body Snatchers“Where you gonna go, where you gonna run, where you gonna hide? Nowhere… ’cause there’s no one like you left.”

Like Philip Kaufman’s 1978 version of the same material, Ferrara indulges in the gore and female nudity de rigueur to the horror genre. Marti disrobes for a very close encounter with groping alien tendrils in a bathtub, and later runs through an infirmary full of gross, half-formed pod people. The very pretty Anwar is so convincingly young-looking that her unexpected nude scenes make one feel decidedly uncomfortable.

In all three versions of the story so far, a pod person delivers some variation of the following warning to human resistors: there’s nowhere to run, nowhere to hide, and there’s no one else left like you. So why do the pod people always work so hard to chase down the few remaining humans? On the evidence of Body Snatchers, they’re still very easily defeated, and the climactic ending is something of a dud.

The infected army base plots to distributes pods to other bases, and eventually amass an armed force capable to taking over the world. But Marti and Tim manage to blow up the base and as entire convoy with just one helicopter. Why was it fully armed during peacetime, anyway? The first film ended with humans just beginning to mobilize against the invaders. The second ended with humanity totally overswept. Now the third ends with us winning. How will Nicole Kidman fare in Invasion? Tune in after our next review, an interlude to look at Robert Rodríguez’ enjoyable homage The Faculty, to find out…


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